Bitter Liquor

25 years ago, Mark Lanegan lost his religion on Whiskey for the Holy Ghost

Mark Lanegan Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, Sub Pop 1994

Mark Lanegan’s mix of angst and intensity reached its fully fulfilled fruition with his sophomore solo album for Sub Pop, Whiskey For The Holy Ghost.

Not nearly as intoxicating as its handle might otherwise suggest, it nevertheless allowed this experienced veteran of the grunge wars to fully vet his anguish and emotion. At least that’s impression it offered. In real life, Lanegan was suffering from drug dependence — according to Wikipedia, at one point he had to be restrained to prevent him from throwing the album’s master tapes into a river. In other words, his habit was intruding on his productivity. He, on the other hand, insisted that the drugs increased his creativity, but it’s best to leave that to the listener. There are in fact some brilliant moments,  the mellow and meandering “Sunrise” being but one example. It sounds like Donovan taking the reigns of Pink Floyd while sticking to the very darkest side of the moon.

On the other hand, there are times where Lanegan goes from being suggestive and subdued to literally letting loose. To describe it as a haunting album drastically understates the case; this is more of a harrowing effort, which is why it still lingers with its largess. It’s as if Lanegan was going out of his way to purge his emotions and delve deeply into more treacherous domains.

Nevertheless, the effect is somewhat unnerving overall, and somewhat deceptive as well. One could compare those softly strummed acoustic guitars on “El Sol,” “Beggar’s Blues” and “The River Rise” to the cuddly-looking orangutang at the zoo that makes like it wants to curl up next to you when all it really wants to do is tear off your hands.

 


Of course, Lanegan was never really a babe in the woods as far as the punk ethos was concerned. Long before Whiskey for the Holy Ghost was curled up like a fetus before springing into its mortal coil, he was in Seattle’s upper echelon, having been a seminal member of the Screaming Trees, not to mention a newer recruit with Queens of the Stone Age, a fleeting partner of Belle and Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell and an occasional studio stand-in with Melissa Auf de Maur, Moby and Mad Season.

It may be most notable however that he was a colleague of Kurt Cobain, and indeed the torrents of noise that crop up in Whiskey create the impression that Lanegan was absorbing Cobain’s influence from early on. Like Sammy Hager stepping in for David Lee Roth with Van Halen or Paul Rodgers subbing for Freddie Mercury with Queen, one might have thought that Lanegan might find his niche taking over fronting Nirvana.

 

 

Oddly enough, Jim Morrison also comes to mind. Two songs in, “Borrachao” finds Lanegan shrieking like a tour guide pointing out weird scenes inside the goldmine. “Carnival” tallies similar results.

Notably, at this point in his career, Lanegan didn’t need to mimic anyone to come across as creepy. The eerie “Kingdoms of Rain” shares its ominous airs with “Riding the Nightingale,” each offering further proof that Lanegan had a knack for coming up with melodies that were every bit as bizarre as their titles implied. Think Robert Plant and Ozzy Osborne riffing on an AC/DC scorcher and coming up with “Stairway to Hell.”

With all the comparisons tossed about, one might get the impression that Lanegan never aspired to be anything more than a master at mimicry. But that’s hardly the case. Lanegan invested himself entirely and emerged with both credibility and conviction.

 

 

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